- Revisiting Standpoint Theory
In the early 1980’s, Nancy Hartsock developed what she called “the feminist standpoint,” a concept which attempted to correct the Marxist idea that one’s perspective is dependent only on one of the two major class positions in a capitalist society. Hartsock suggested instead that the position of women is structurally different from that of men, that the lived realities of women’s lives are profoundly different from those of men. She argued that
the sexual division of labor forms the basis for a feminist standpoint; on the basis of the structures which define women’s activity as contributors to subsistence and as mothers one could begin the construction of such an epistemological tool....Just as Marx’s understanding of the world from the standpoint of the proletariat enabled him to go beneath bourgeois ideology, so a feminist standpoint can allow us to understand patriarchal institutions and ideologies as perverse inversions of more humane social relations.1
Hartsock thus attempted to translate the concept of the standpoint of the proletariat, by analogy, into feminist terms. Rather than beginning with men’s labor experiences, Hartsock began her analysis with the life activity of women; and because Hartsock believes that “women’s work in every society differs systematically from men’s,” the activity of women’s work served as the ground or standpoint for her analysis.2 By examining work uniquely performed by women, a feminist standpoint could be developed, she argued, that “would deepen the critique available from the standpoint of the proletariat and allow for a critique of patriarchal ideology and social relations that would provide a more complete account of the domination of women than Marx’s critique of capitalism.”3 Thus, women’s oppression was not produced by a different system of oppression (such as patriarchy), but rather by the fact that women—as a result of the work assigned to them as women—took up a different position in the system of class oppression.
Building on the work of Nancy Hartsock, Kathi Weeks provides a renewed definition of feminist standpoint theory. According to her, A standpoint is a collective interpretation of a particular subject position rather than an immediate perspective automatically acquired by an individual who inhabits that position.
A standpoint is derived from political practice, from a collective effort to revalue and reconstitute specific practices. Thus, a standpoint constitutes a subject, but one which does not rely on a transcendental or natural essence. A standpoint is a project, not an inheritance; it is achieved, not given (p. 136).
In her Constituting Feminist Subjects, Weeks argues that where dual and unified Marxist systems theories focused primarily on oppressive systems as wholes, standpoint theories shift the focus to the productions of subjects constituted by and constitutive of these systems relations. Weeks’s version of standpoint theory argues that rather than collapsing feminism into traditional Marxism, some mode of sexism exists in addition to and/or alongside economic and class relations. However, this additional mode of sexism must be recognized and acted upon in order to bring about feminist politics. “It is the potential power of these subjects,” she claims, “rather than just the effectiveness of the system that is the primary concern. Whereas systems theory is primarily concerned with how the system is maintained, standpoint theory pays more attention to how it can be transformed.” (p. 90) Thus, for her, standpoint theory articulates a subject that can effectively combat patriarchy and capitalism; women’s laboring practices produce for them a flexible but stable ontology from which to execute political change.
One of the main strength’s of Weeks’s thinking is her insistence on concrete social change through, as she calls it, “the possibility of agency.” For her, theories that destabilize both the individual and the sense of totality are crippling in terms of their political effect. The problem with many new theories associated with poststructuralism, according to her, is that there is no solid entity to oppose, no firm ontology on which to take a stand. Standpoint theory corrects this. “Whereas standpoint theory eschews natural and metaphysical models of subjectivity, it also acknowledges...